Pediatric Dentistry vs. Orthodontics: What’s the Difference?

Difference between pediatric dentistry and orthodontics

Understand the terms that help you care for your child’s oral health as they grow.

Parents work hard to make sure their children are happy, healthy, and thriving. It’s a rewarding job where you get to make countless memories, from moments that are genuinely hard to moments that are joyful or hilarious. Despite this, parenthood can be downright hard. You have to keep track of a lot of information, especially when it comes to your child’s health. Even when you hone in on a specific aspect of their health, like their oral health, all of the different terms can get confusing. Thankfully, that’s where we come in!

Our children’s dental specialists are here to help ensure your child develops strong, healthy teeth and gums. We’re here to answer your questions. One of the topics we get questions on a lot is the difference between pediatric dentistry and orthodontics, especially as dentists begin to recommend that children have their first orthodontics evaluation earlier. What’s the difference between these two fields of dentistry and how do they impact each other? To help you understand the answers to these questions, we’ve put together a comparison between pediatric dentistry and orthodontics.

Pediatric dentistry and orthodontics have different oral health focuses.

The biggest difference between pediatric and orthodontic dentistry is the focus of each field. Pediatric dentistry is a specialized field of dentistry that focuses on the oral health of children. Dentists who choose this specialty are essentially general dentists for children. Pediatric dentists are the ones who examine and clean your child’s teeth twice a year, keep an eye on the development of baby and permanent teeth, fill cavities, and carry out other routine treatments. Orthodontics is another specialized field of dentistry, but it has a narrower focus: straightening patients’ bites. Orthodontic treatments improve the appearance and health of patients’ smiles and can be undergone at any age, but it’s generally best to resolve problems sooner rather than later. Despite these differences, pediatric and orthodontic dentistry both aim to make your child healthier, so they’re both essential to protecting and maintaining your child’s long-term oral health.

Childhood habits can increase the likelihood that your child will need braces.

While genetics play a role in whether or not your child will need braces, there’s a wide range of other factors that can influence this aspect of your child’s development, including several childhood habits like pacifier use or thumb-sucking. These habits are perfectly normal self-soothing tactics for young children. In fact, they’re actively beneficial for your baby. As your little one grows, however, the risks of these habits begin to outweigh the benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you begin weaning your baby from their pacifier at around six months old, ideally weaning them completely by around a year old and no later than two.

There are several ways you can go about getting your child to drop their pacifier habit. You can simply go cold turkey and remove the pacifier all at once, but this method requires you to buckle down and stick it out. Alternatively, you can wean them off over a longer period of time by setting specific times and places where your child can use their pacifier, using positive reinforcement, or offering them a toy or snack as an alternative to the pacifier. Thumb-sucking is a similar habit, but children often stop this habit themselves between the ages of six months and four years old. Just like pacifiers, it’s best to try to wean your child off of this habit before it begins affecting their baby teeth. Since you can’t remove your child’s thumbs from the equation like you can their pacifier, thumb-sucking is a harder habit to get your child to drop. Relying on positive reinforcement and replacing the behavior with a different positive interaction are two of the best methods at your disposal.

Crooked teeth and misaligned bites can cause oral and overall health problems.

Over time, crooked teeth and misaligned bites can cause a wide range of health issues for your child. Crooked teeth are harder to brush and floss thoroughly, which increases your child’s chances of getting tooth decay or gum disease. If it goes untreated, tooth decay and gum disease can lead to tooth loss. Even losing a baby tooth to decay can impact your child’s permanent smile because baby teeth help guide permanent teeth into the right position as they erupt. Without a baby tooth saving its spot and guiding it into the right position, your child’s permanent teeth can come in crooked or overcrowded. Additionally, untreated gum disease can increase the chances your child will suffer from a wide range of overall health issues in the future, including pneumonia or other respiratory diseases, heart disease, and stroke.

Misaligned bites can cause their own problems as well by leading to a temporomandibular joint disorder, also called TMD. This is a group of conditions characterized by jaw pain that’s often severe enough to impact your child’s ability to eat or speak normally. TMD can also cause muscle pains in the neck, shoulders, and back, frequent or severe headaches, hearing loss, and more. All of these potential repercussions from crooked teeth and misaligned bites can occur at any age, so it’s wise to go ahead and receive an orthodontic consultation for your child as soon as you can. This way, you can resolve your child’s bite while they’re young — before it causes bigger issues.

Early orthodontic evaluations can make all the difference for your child’s oral health.

If you had braces as a kid, it’s likely that you didn’t go to your first orthodontics consultation until you were around 12 years old — and maybe as late as 14. Nowadays, however, dentists and orthodontists alike recommend you take your child in for their first orthodontics evaluation when they’re around seven years old. At this age, enough of your child’s permanent teeth have come in for orthodontists to use improved dental technology to predict where your child’s adult teeth will come in and what dental issues, if any, they’re likely to face. You might be wondering, “OK, that’s great, but is it really necessary to take my child to an orthodontist so early?”

The answer is yes! Since your child’s face and jaws are still growing, orthodontists can do more than simply predict issues with their future bite; they can take action before these issues develop to prevent or reduce them! Palate expansion is a perfect example of an early orthodontic treatment. It prevents or lessens overcrowding in your child’s mouth by taking advantage of the fact that the plates of bone at the top of your child’s mouth haven’t fused together yet. Using a similar idea to braces, palate expanders exert slow, gently increasing pressure on your child’s palate, pushing the bones apart over time. The bones grow in response, widening your child’s palate and creating more room for their adult teeth. This treatment can cut back on or eliminate the need for future tooth extractions that may otherwise have been necessary to reduce overcrowding in your child’s mouth. Early orthodontic treatments like this don’t guarantee that your child won’t need orthodontic treatment like braces when they reach their teens or preteens, but it does reduce the severity or length of treatment they’ll have to undergo in the future.

Pediatric dentistry and orthodontics work together to keep your child healthy.

Despite the different focuses of pediatric dentistry and orthodontics, the two fields of dentistry have the same goal: improving your child’s short- and long-term oral health. Treatments from each field work together to benefit your child’s oral health for an entire lifetime. If you have more questions about pediatric dentistry, orthodontics, and next steps for your child’s oral health, feel free to call our Omaha pediatrics office and schedule a consultation at any time.